August Ireland leading the way in drive to make science laboratories more sustainable
‘We are a small country with a high level of pharmaceutical and biotech companies so it has been easy to spread awareness’
A University of Exeter study found that the average bench scientist generates more than 1,000kg of plastic waste each year compared to about 61 grammes generated by the average person. Put all these statistics together and it’s not surprising that efforts are now under way to introduce more sustainable practices into academic and commercial laboratories across Ireland.
Jack O’Grady, senior programme manager of My Green Lab in Ireland, explains that with 139 laboratories here partaking in the My Green Lab certification programme, Ireland is second only to the United States in terms of numbers involved in the sustainability initiative but by per head of population we have most labs in the world pursuing Green Lab certification.
“We are a small country with a high level of pharmaceutical and biotech companies so it has been easy to spread awareness,” says O’Grady who formerly worked for Regeneron pharmaceutical company in Limerick.Neuroscientist Una Fitzgerald kick-started the initiative here when the CÚRAM Science Foundation Ireland research centre for medical devices at the University of Galway became the first European lab to receive My Green Lab certification in 2019. That lab also became the first Irish lab to renew its Green Lab certification in 2022.
“It’s about awareness-raising with each new group of students. It’s all about questioning what we are doing and interrogating our practices. For example, asking can I switch some chemicals to those that are less toxic to me and the environment and still get the same results,” explains Fitzgerald, who is an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Galway.
As chairwoman of the voluntary Irish Green Lab Network, Fitzgerald hosts meetings with representatives from all State university labs in Ireland, some hospital labs and some corporate labs that have or are pursuing Green Lab certification. “It’s about making it part of the culture of the lab but getting it embedded in the culture of the organisation is harder,” she says.
The certification is recognised by the United Nations Race to Zero campaign as a key measure of progress towards a zero-carbon future. And all university labs in Ireland have a target to be certified by My Green Lab by 2026.
Earlier this year, the South East Technological University (Setu) developed a greener lab guide following efforts there to reduce energy, waste and water while improving procurement processes and embracing green chemistry and green biology.
“We wanted to rethink how things have always been done daily in our laboratories, change mindsets and embed a culture of sustainability in our centre,” explains Tracey Coady, senior lecturer in pharmaceutical sciences at Setu’s Department of Science and project lead on My Green Lab at Setu.
One of the biggest users of energy in laboratories is fume hoods (also called fume cupboards or fume closets) which are ventilation devices designed to limit exposure to hazardous or toxic fumes, vapours and dusts.
“They account for between 40 and 50 per cent of the total energy consumption in the laboratory,” explains Niall O’Reilly, manager of the Pharmaceutical Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre at Setu. Simply putting “shut the sash” stickers next to the closing device on the fume hoods ensures machines are kept at the lowest operation position when the laboratories are not in use.
Ultra-low temperature freezers used to store biological samples are estimated to use as much energy as an average American household each day. Orla Watters, senior technical officer at the Waterford campus of Setu says a lot of samples are stored at minus 80 degrees as researchers want to ensure their samples are safe so that experiment results can be replicated. “But, if we increase the temperature to minus 70 degrees, a lot of the samples will be fine so we need to change the mindset,” she adds.
She refers to an initiative started in 2011 by the University of Colorado in the US where samples stored at minus 70 degrees are monitored. “Now, other universities have joined and continue to catalogue their monitoring to reassure researchers that their samples are safe at minus 70 degrees,” she notes.
Some researchers are also embracing more sustainable processes that they hope will be taken on by pharmaceutical companies. For example, PhD student at Setu Sarah Kernaghan is working on a greener approach to pharmaceutical production using enzymes.
“I’m using bio-catalysis which involves the use of natural enzymes to catalyse reactions rather than finite metals or harsh acids. Enzymes work well at room temperature which is safer for the chemists and also reduces the energy consumption required by other catalysts requiring higher or lower temperatures,” she says.
Enzymes can also be used over and over again rather than being used up in the experiment. Other research aims to reduce the volumes of solvents used in chemical analysis or even better to replace them with more environmentally friendly solvents.
In the new Setu Greener Lab guide, there are lots of simple tips to improve sustainability. For example, ensuring the last person leaving the laboratory checks that all equipment and processes that can be turned off at the end of the day are turned off. “We plan to roll this out across all laboratories to go after rogue instruments using loads of energy,” O’Reilly says.The so-called freezer challenge also encourages researchers to clean vents, check seals and remove ice so that freezers work at their most efficient levels. And researchers are also encouraged to switch from plastic to glass/reusable plastic and to share reagents or other materials with other laboratories before putting them in the waste/recycling streams.
John O’Brien is laboratory manager at the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Science at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The two largest labs — physiology and pharmacy and bio-molecular sciences have received Green Lab certification in the last year. “It was predominantly about reducing energy, waste and water but we also segregated waste and introduced reusable plastics,” O’Brien says. Creating a separate waste stream for polystyrene and finding a company that would collect it was another key aspect of their efforts.
Co-ordinating orders from suppliers is another obvious way of reducing transportation costs (and sometimes packaging) as well as reducing the emissions from the transport sector itself. “We have about 40 researchers and while we can’t always predict when we need chemicals, we could develop a system for orders where there is a database or list so we could co-ordinate ordering with each other,” O’Reilly adds.
The move towards more sustainable practices in State-funded academic laboratories is in line with the obligation on all public bodies to reduce their carbon emissions by 51 per cent by 2030 from baseline years of 2016-2018 and to improve energy efficiency to 50 per cent from base years between 2001 and 2005.
But those at the forefront of the green labs concept, underline the need to educate undergraduate students in these sustainability practices so that when they go into industry, they will carry the knowledge and practical approach into their commercial laboratories.
“It’s all about education and communication. In Setu, we have about 900 students about 130 laboratories running every week where we can significantly reduce the volume of waste. It’s about creating an ethos across all our undergraduate laboratories so that we are also very conscious of sustainability,” Watters says.